Humans have a strange, wonderful, and storied relationship with music. In some cases, we may even use them to shape the narratives of our own lives. Today, technology can impact the way people encounter and experience new music. It’s no wonder that Spotify, a company whose goal is to curate personal soundtracks for its users, wants to better understand how we listen to music and if those habits evolve over time.
Spotify researchers have been hard at work finding answers, and a new study from the company examines some emerging patterns in how different age groups explore new content. Researchers at the company further broke down what the data uncovered in a blog post today. Her entire paper was published in the Proceedings of the Sixteenth International AAAI Conference on Web and Social Media.
Specifically, the music streaming company found that user behavior tends to change over time and that while younger users explore less content overall, what they explored was more diverse compared to older users. Spotify’s findings indicate that younger users are “generalist repeat consumers” who tend to consume a wide range of music.
“Although younger people explore less, more of the tracks they explore are eventually converted into favorites that they consume again later,” the researchers write in the paper.
Meanwhile, older users are “specialists” constantly browsing through a “narrower set of content” similar to what they already know. Listeners over 45 were the least diverse in the cohorts measured by Spotify, suggesting that “preferences tend to ossify over the course of the human lifecycle.”
“A specialized explorer may frequently move between different content in a small region of the music landscape,” the researchers wrote. “On the other hand, a generalist user may listen to the same diverse content while rarely looking for novelty.”
You can think of a generalist as someone who can listen to everything from K-pop to underground grunge to bossa nova, while a specialist might be someone who only listens to movie soundtracks from different eras.
This agrees with a previous analysis New York Times Conducted on Spotify data suggesting that our tastes are typically formed in our teenage years, setting the precedent for our later music preferences. Other independent scholars have also said so, with one of the same publication saying in 2011 that the critical time to learn what kind of music you like is between the ages of 14 and 24.
Now, as a note on the details of the new Spotify study, researchers marked an article as a “discovery” if it was about something a user was hearing on the platform for the first time. Tracks are marked as “locally novel” if the user has heard them before but comes back to them after a while. As users toggle songs on and off from their daily or weekly listening sessions, they are effectively switching content. Spotify carefully analyzed how often 100,000 US-based Spotify Premium users discovered and shared music content across 8 billion unique listening events between 2016 and 2019. They then sorted these behavioral scores by age group.
[Related: Why Spotify’s music recommendations always seem so spot on]
In general, all users have accumulated a growing collection of newly discovered content over time, and they often changed what they listened to from time to time. However, when the team graphed metrics like “discoveries per stream” over time, they found that younger users had, on average, fewer discoveries and lower content revenue in the same calendar time compared to older users. This trend is fairly consistent across organic listening (songs or playlists that users searched for directly), programmed listening (Spotify’s radio or other personalized recommendations), old content (content released before 2014), and new content ( although younger users preferred newer content).
Younger users also researched more sporadically. Their exploration phases are fairly evenly spaced between their content repetition phases. However, older users tend to focus their discovery periods into clustered windows of time, with longer periods between exploration and revisit – they explore a large amount of content during discovery windows.
This study adds to a growing body of theories about why we listen to the music we make, what our genre preferences tell us about our personality, and how moods and the challenges we face at different stages of our lives can change the soundtracks to which we are attracted to. But while age can affect our listening habits, other factors can also play a role. In fact, Spotify researchers found that exploration for all groups spikes around Christmas, when people are more likely to search for seasonal music. In addition, all users are more consistently discovering new music through programmed listening, such as through playlist radios. How users navigate the platform and their hearing varies over time remains an area where the company is actively investigating.
So why does Spotify care about the little things of their listeners? The most obvious answer is that by understanding how users discover and interact with different music, the company can better assess what people like to listen to, when, and how. The platform can then use this information to direct people to a variety of content that they may be interested in. Anticipating these factors could allow Spotify to display more timely content and change its recommendation strategies as users grow, which will help them attract and retain users over time.